Network: Amanda Foreman, My Technology: Perfect for researching the life of Ally McBeal

The Internet was a constant companion to Amanda Foreman during the five years that she was writing her Whitbread Award-winning biography
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The Independent Culture
As a history student at Oxford, we were taught how to use the Internet. We weren't considering how reliable the Internet is as a historical source because the Internet is about reliability of access not of information. And it is more useful for modern research rather than for historical research, which requires primary sources. There are these mad websites proclaiming the end of the world. I just use it as a search engine and an information depository.

It's a particular kind of source that is very good for seeking out secondary sources - books, articles, pamphlets, periodicals. But unless everything is scanned into the computer it is never going to take over. The Internet won't cut down history into a digestible chunk. History is about uncovering the past and if it is on a computer then it has already been uncovered.

What is especially interesting and helpful to my historical research is the Encarta CD-Rom encyclopaedia link to the Microsoft search engine. I cannot over-emphasise just how useful it is to me. For example, if I was searching on the Houses of Parliament, I get the Encarta entry and links to other sites. What I have is a potted history at a glance.

More valuable as a historical source is Microsoft's own collection of periodicals. This type of collection is why the Internet is such an invaluable research tool, a marvellous depository of secondary sources. Even the British Library is online. It is a shame that you can't read books online quite yet, but it means I can search book availability and can refer to it easily and quickly when compiling a bibliography. The Internet does make a huge difference in time and effort.

The Internet was also a companion during the five years it took me to write the biography. All academics use the Internet like mad, perhaps something to do with sitting at a desk in front of a computer most of the time! After all, it's original use after it was set up by the military was in the academies.

I often use it for leisure-related information. This week I wanted to go to the theatre, and all I had to do was go to whats.on.com, look up "listings, reviews" and book the tickets. I have bookmarked various favourite sites, ranging from a Star Wars site which I like to check in on regularly, to book and history sites.

The Internet can be very frustrating. It can be slow to download and still crashes occasionally, but there is nothing we can do about that, as yet. Also, I get lost on the Net. After all, working at home and writing a book, it is quite tempting to play - until I realise I have spent all morning searching the Ally McBeal website. And then I get so depressed! Clearly, I didn't want to work. However, if it wasn't the Net it would be something else. It could be television. At least when people come round you can't sit there staring at the computer screen.

It's a good messenger source, much easier than letters or the phone. I often talk to university tutors around the world through e-mail, plus it means I can access public libraries. I guess I use it a couple of hours a day, every day, and would say it's all pretty useful time, (except when checking up on what happened on ER last week). My next project is to go online banking. I work from home, so it makes sense for me, but I believe everyone will be living online in the next couple of years.

Amanda Foreman won the 1998 Whitbread Biography Award for `Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' (HarperCollins)

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